Two-year-old Logan stood at the front desk of the nature center, his hands jammed deep into his pockets. “Hi, Joe,” he said, fighting his shyness.
Joe looked over his spectacles. “Hi, Logan. How are you today?” he asked. Logan’s face beamed his response. He was thrilled that Joe remembered his name, just as he always does.
That’s how many conversations start with Joe Polka at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center. He’s been a volunteer naturalist there since 1997. The remarkable thing is that Joe has donated more than 10,000 hours of time over the past nine years to the Department of Conservation. He’s the only volunteer naturalist in the state to ever achieve this milestone.
What’s even more amazing about Joe’s incredible dedication is that for four of those years he held down a full-time job with the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals. He now works for them on a part-time basis as warehouse manager while continuing his volunteer hours at the nature center.
At a recent Friday Night Live special event, Joe was holding 8-month-old Cora Hartwig. She reached for the reading glasses in his pocket. “Watch out,” her father said, “She’ll break them.” “Oh, that’s okay,” Joe replied, “I have another pair in the car.” When it comes to kids, Joe’s a pushover. He’s befriended countless children during the Nature Center’s preschooler storytime, Rockin’ & Readin’ Nature Tales. The toddlers love to gather around Joe as he reads them stories of nature and wild adventures.
As staff members have been promoted through the ranks and other volunteer naturalists have left the Nature Center program, Joe has remained a constant. He now helps train new volunteer naturalists. He adds whimsy and fun to the customer service training portion and has the class laughing at his do’s and don'ts at the front desk. Joe attends most sessions to assist the assistant manager or guest trainer by passing out materials, running the AV equipment, getting the refreshments ready on time and whatever else it takes to help run the class efficiently. Of course, prior to the class starting, Joe has already assembled all of the class workbooks.
Over the years, Joe has become an icon at Burr Oak Woods. He has helped with every project, program and special event imaginable. He gladly leads guided hikes, assists with interpretive programs or cleans out the storage room. He’s just as adept at staffing the snake station during a special event as he is at serving refreshments.
Joe is also a pretty good cook. For Burr Oak Woods’ Public Work Days, the staff always bring in a pot of chili, homemade soup or dessert. Joe will be in the midst of things with one of his famous chilies. For the last several years, he has also begun a tradition of making corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a staff favorite around here, and we are very thankful that he willingly shares his enthusiasm for the luck of the Irish.
An avid reader, Joe delights in being the first to find a new field guide or wildlife book offered at the bookstore. If he finds a good one, he’s been known to buy two copies and give one to a naturalist as a thank-you for helping him load equipment or for helping him put together a program. Or, he’ll donate it to the Nature Center reference library for all of the staff and volunteers to use.
Joe’s home library is chock-full of books on birds, mammals, butterflies, trees, wildflowers, gardening, native plants, reptiles, amphibians, and whatever his latest interest might be. Occasionally, he’ll weed through his library and bring an armload of books to the Nature Center reference library as a personal donation. The staff and volunteers continue to learn from his gifts.
At a recent Managers’ Meeting held in Springfield, Missouri, this article was mentioned. The topic, of course, was Joe Polka reaching 10,000 hours of service with the Missouri Department of Conservation. All of the other nature center managers expressed their thanks and gratitude for Joe’s selfless dedication. Linda Chorice, nature center manager at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center said, “That is so cool. Isn’t it something to know about the special people like Joe, even though he’s not even at our site!”
Joe Polka turned 72 this year, but he has the strength and stamina of a much younger man. Perhaps giving so much of himself is what keeps him so young. There have been times when the staff has teased him because he seems to be at the nature center whenever the doors are open. But suggestions to “go home and get some rest,” go unheeded. Perhaps we’re all just selfish enough to be glad our advice is ignored.
Joe has four daughters who are spread throughout the country, but he treats the staff and other volunteers at the nature center like family. There’s no doubt that Joe gets up in the morning and thinks about what he’s going to do at Burr Oak Woods that day, and it really doesn’t matter what day of the week it is—he’ll be there.
Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center is home to many talented and giving volunteer naturalists. There is no way we could name them all and recount the many ways they make our lives easier. More importantly, there is no way we could ever touch the number of Missourians that we do without all of our volunteers. They all have their niche in the life of the nature center.
We do want to offer our special thanks, however, to this one volunteer who has gone above and beyond all of the others in the state of Missouri. Joe Polka, you’ve made your mark and impacted thousands of people. We’re glad you hang your hat here
The only thing more fun than doing your favorite outdoor activity is sharing your passion for it with others.
Become a vital part of one of the nation’s most respected conservation departments—an agency dedicated to managing Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources.
Know that your work makes a difference for Missouri’s people and nature—today and for the future.
Contact your local conservation facility or visit missouriconservation.org/volunteer to find a volunteer opportunity that’s a good match for your outdoor passion and skills. See page 1 for a list of regional phone numbers.
1401 N.W. Park Road, Blue Springs, MO 64015
Open year ’round, Monday through Saturday, 8–5 p.m.; Sunday, noon–5 p.m.; closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during daylight-saving time, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
(816) 228-3766; missouriconservation.org/areas/cnc/burroak/
Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
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